Heather Nova emerged in the mid-1990s with a pure, high soprano voice that delivers a range of emotion from wistfulness to aggression. Though her atmospheric, alternative music has been compared to that of other contemporary singers like Sarah McLachlan, she delivers a more rock-oriented sound. Nova began composing her own songs while in college and continues to write her own material. After her first full-length debut in 1995, she had a breakthrough in 1998 when the television shows Felicity and Dawson’s Creek featured her songs on some episodes and on their corresponding soundtracks.
Nova was born Heather Frith in Bermuda in 1968 and grew up on the sea with her parents on a 40-foot sailboat they had built. The craft had no running water or refrigeration; a wind-driven generator provided scant electricity for the craft’s cassette player. Thus, Nova was exposed to hardly any popular culture except for old tapes of the Beatles, Jimmy Cliff, Van Morrison, and Neil Young that her parents occasionally played. Her early musical training came when the family would gather with other boaters throughout the West Indies. “People would get together on someone’s boat in the evenings,” Nova told Steve Appleford in Rolling Stone. “That’s when I learned guitar.”
At age 15, Nova began attending school in the United States, where she found the adjustment to life on land difficult. She felt that while her studies had not suffered, she was awkward socially. To remedy her feelings of isolation, she sought out the music of Patti Smith, David Bowie, the Cocteau Twins, and the Pixies.
Nova went on to attend the Rhode Island School of Design, where she began studying film and painting. While there, she also began delving into poetry and writing songs. She remarked on her official website, “I got in the studio and started doing films where I would make the soundtracks first and then do the Super 8 films to go with the soundtracks; after a while, these films started taking the forms of songs.” She graduated in 1989.
Before long, Nova abandoned filmmaking for songwriting. She put together a three-song demo tape and delivered it to the offices of Columbia Records in New York City hoping for a contract. “I had no idea how the music industry worked at all,” she revealed to Apple-ford. She had looked up the record company’s address on the back of a compact disc in a music store.
Having no luck with this approach, Nova then traveled to London, where she worked in the Bermuda tourism office by day and moonlighted playing music in pubs and cafes. Eventually, the president of the European independent record label Big Cat caught her act. The label was also home to the likes of Luscious Jackson, Pavement, and Palace Brothers. Nova soon landed a manager and in 1990 released her first EP, These
Born Heather Frith, 1968, in Bermuda. Education: Rhode Island School of Design, graduated, 1989.
Began composing songs for use in her student films, c. 1987; released first EP (under given name), These Walls, 1990; released EP Glow Stars, Butterfly, 1993; released full-length debut, Oyster, 1995; toured with Lilith Fair, 1998; music featured on WB television shows Felicity and Dawson’s Creek, 1999, and included on soundtracks to those programs.
Addresses: Record company —Sony Music Entertainment Inc., 1 Jericho Plaza, Jericho, NY 11753.
Walls, which would later become a collectors’ item. That year, Big Cat also issued The First Recordings.
While in London, Nova met Youth, the bassist for the punk band Killing Joke. In 1993, he put out a collection of her work, Glow Stars, on his own Butterfly label. Afterward, Appleford wrote in Rolling Stone, “Nova quickly built a full band around herself to create a rich if often dark fabric that weaves her fondness for lilting vocals with the edge of electric guitar and the melancholy sweep of cello.” She attracted a European following and released two live EPs, Blow (recorded in London) and Live from the Milky Way (made in Amsterdam). Nova remarked to Appleford that she enjoyed working with a band because she used to be afraid of performing, but being surrounded by other artists has allowed her to just concentrate wholly on the music.
In 1996, Nova made her full-scale debut with Oyster, which included the catchy single “Walk This World.” That video started getting MTV airplay and the group launched a tour of the United States and Japan. At this point, her band included guitarist David Ayers, drummer Bob Thompson, bassist Gareth Thomas, and cellist Nadia Lanman. Around this time, in the mid-1990s, female performers began to hit new heights. Nova was part of a wave of women singers and performers, such as Alanis Morissette, Courtney Love, Sarah McLachlan, and Tori Amos. Like the two latter artists, Nova was suited more for softer “adult alternative” radio, with her powerful yet delicate pop-rock songs featuring poignant lyrics, but her works were more rock-oriented, like Morissette’s. In fact, one reviewer for the Los Angeles Times called her “Alanis Lite.” Though Nova usually tours with her full band, she sometimes will perform acoustic sets accompanied only by a cello player.
In June of 1998, Nova came out with her second full-length release, Siren. Its first single was the midtempo “London Rain (Nothing Heals Me Like You Do),” which recalled works by artists such as Amos and Natalie Imbruglia. Nova, however, peppered the piece with falsetto vocals and spoken-word passages to keep it fresh. The album’s offerings focused mainly on wistful songs about love and relationships and was heavy on earth-laden metaphor and sexual overtones. For this effort, she worked with a more experienced group, including Nicolaj Juel of Addict on guitar, Paul Sandrome of Raissa on bass, and Geoff Dougmore of Killing Joke on drums, while keeping Lanman on cello.
Nova created the collection while on a sabbatical after two years of touring, working without interruption from a phone or television. “I went home to Bermuda and rented this cottage that was right on the sea and as it was winter time there were lots of storms,” she related on her official website. “The front of the cottage was literally in the water and waves would lash at the walls. It was fantastic.”
Siren attracted little attention for four months after its release, until the WB television network’s show Felicity used the song “Valley of Sound” in an episode. The next day, WB also used “London Rain” on the program Dawson’s Creek. Believing that music tie-ins were key to attracting teen audiences to this type of show, the network began negotiating deals with several artists whereby they could use recordings for a much-reduced fee in exchange for an on-screen plug. The WB network thus prominently displayed Nova’s album cover on each show and announced the songs by name. Subsequently, Siren leaped from obscurity, making the Billboard Top 200 after its television appearance.
In 1999, Nova’s “Valley of Sound,” “London Rain,” and “Paper Cup” all appeared on the Dawson’s Creek soundtrack album, and “Heart and Shoulder” was featured on the Felicity album as well as being used in the Julia Roberts film Notting Hill. In addition, “Island” showed up on the second volume of live Lilith Fair recordings. Also that year, Nova appeared as a backup singer on her brother Mishka’s self-titled debut reggae album, and sang a haunting version of the Clash’s “Straight to Hell” on a tribute album, Burning London, in a collaboration with Moby.
These Walls (EP), Big Cat, 1990.
The First Recordings, Big Cat, 1990.
Glow Stars, Butterfly, 1993.
Blow (live), Big Cat, 1993.
Live from the Milky Way (EP), Work, 1995.
Oyster, Columbia, 1995.
Siren, Sony, 1998.
Reading ’95 Special, Volume 14, VLM, 1995.
The Craft (film soundtrack), Columbia, 1996.
Crow: City of Angels (film soundtrack) Hollywood, 1996.
Felicity, Hollywood, 1999.
Notting Hill (film soundtrack), Island, 1999.
Songs from Dawson’s Creek, Sony, 1999.
Burning London (Clash tribute album) Epic, 1999.
Mishka, Sony/Epic, 1999.
Adweek, October 11, 1999, p. M92.
Billboard, June 13, 1998, p. 23; December 5, 1998, p. 85; December 19, 1998, p. 47; April 24, 1999, p. 16; May 15, 1999, p. 20.
Los Angeles Times, March 19, 1995, p. 8; October 19, 1995, p. 3.
People, September 4, 1995, p. 26.
Rolling Stone, December 14, 1995, p. 41; September 16, 1999, p. 119.
USA Today, October 28, 1998, p. 3D.
Washington Post, July 24, 1998, p. N15.
“Heather Nova,” All Music Guide, http://www.allmusic.com (September 1, 2000).
Heather Nova Official Website, http://www.heathernova.com (September 1, 2000).
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